An Early Answer to a Difficult Question

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Friends, acquaintances, and strangers in the U.S. often ask me, “How much anti-Semitism is there in Hungary today?” To answer, I would need much more knowledge than I have right now. I would need to be fluent in Hungarian to understand the many layers of conversation around me. I would need to know Hungary’s history; my knowledge right now is elementary and spotty at best. Beyond that, I would need to speak with a range of people, of different backgrounds and walks of life. Here I will try to convey (much too briefly) what I understand as of now: that Jews in Hungary have a rich and painful history, as does Hungary itself, and that my personal experiences so far have been of profound kindness.

First, for those who do not know it, a little about my ancestry. My mother is Jewish (of Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian origins); my father is not (his ancestors came from France, Norway, Ireland, Holland, and elsewhere). I consider myself fully Jewish but not only Jewish; I am heritage, experiences, education, choices, practices, languages, and the millions of things that make up a person. I was not brought up Jewish; how I came to it six years ago is a longer (and wonderful) story, possibly for a much later time. But yes, I am a Jew, by lineage and practice–not strict practice, but practice nonetheless.

From what I understand, Jews in Hungary date back at least to the Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Jews had assimilated into Hungarian life, occupying a range of professions and trades, attending school with non-Jews, and intermarrying. At the same time, undercurrents of anti-Semitism could erupt in violence at any time. I don’t know what drove my great-grandfather’s family to leave Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia) in 1890–but their lives may have been affected by the Tiszaeszlár Affair–the blood libel of 1882–and its repercussions.

The Hungarian Holocaust was swift and brutal, but with long antecedents. Jews and non-Jews–or many, anyway–are now grappling with what happened during those years. There are memorials, commemorations, studies, but also efforts to forget or to deflect responsibility–and bitter controversies over the way history is portrayed or apportioned. There are new beginnings, too. At Szim Salom (my synagogue in Budapest) we sometimes have newcomers who are looking into their heritage, or exploring their Judaism, for the first time; some are Holocaust survivors or children of survivors, while others may have just discovered that a parent or grandparent was Jewish.

But what about anti-Semitism today? Is it strong? I have heard varying responses to this, from Jews and non-Jews alike. I have met only one person who said anything anti-Semitic in my presence: an old man in the village of Pácin, who was standing with me under the eaves of a grocery store, waiting for the downpour to stop. He began ranting about Jews and the Holocaust until he realized I was Jewish. His theory (if I understood it correctly–this was all in Hungarian, and his speech was slurred) was that Jews didn’t really die in the Holocaust, and that Viktor Orbán was now bringing them back.

Orbán is contradictory, for that matter, as is his milieu; his anti-Soros posters have obvious anti-Semitic tropes, as do some of his anti-liberal statements. Yet he also supports Israel (in some way) and Jewish life in Budapest (in some way). Jewish life in Budapest is thriving–with about 22 active synagogues, kosher stores, Jewish festivals, Jewish schools, and more. It may be one of the safest places in Europe, or even in the world, for Jews today.

But Orbán’s policies and statements do not account for everything; there are also rules, spoken and unspoken, in workplaces and elsewhere, with long histories of their own. Some people have told me that they never bring up being Jewish, except among other Jews or others they especially trust. There is still a fear of abrupt loss, or subtle ostracism and exclusion. It is also rude, I am told, to ask people whether they are Jewish (or Roma, or any other Hungarian minority); if they are, it’s up to them to decide whom to tell. Many people keep their heritage under wraps, from what I understand.

Compared to Hungarian Jews, I am in a fairly secure position; as a foreigner, I am already different, and as a teacher of English, I am needed and appreciated. So far I have felt genuinely respected for who I am and what I do. In Szolnok as well as in Budapest, I have been open about my Jewishness, and here are some things I have seen.

My colleagues–and other adults I know–show respect for Jews and Jewish history in their words and actions. On the day of the Holocaust commemoration, two colleagues arranged for a chorus of students to sing at the main event at the gallery (the former synagogue, shown in the picture above). Another colleague told me about the Holocaust memorial run at the end of that day; we both joined the run, along with another colleague. Two more colleagues introduced me to the people in charge of the gallery so that I could discuss the possibility of holding an event there. The event took place, and it was beautiful. I have colleagues who wish me well at the time of the Jewish holidays–and the school has allowed me, every year so far, to take a day off each for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Around me I hear people discussing Judaism, Jewish writers, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and more–and the discussion is thoughtful and searching. There are people who readily admit–with shame and pain–not only to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, but to Szolnok’s as well.

As for students, I am reluctant to repeat their words on this blog, especially on sensitive subjects–but they often bring up Jewish writers, films, and musicians, as well as Jewish history. They are curious about Judaism as well; they ask questions about it and read about it on their own. Several students cited Miklós Radnóti’s “Nem tudhatom” (“I cannot know”) as a favorite poem; one recited it from memory. I later memorized it too and recited it for one of my classes one day; a student said, “That was amazing. But do you know what it means? Do you know what it means?” I began to explain what I thought it meant, and I saw the vague nods, meaning, yes, yes, but there is much more.

Jews and non-Jews are not entirely separate or separable here; as I mentioned before, many non-Jews have someone Jewish in their family, and the synagogues–many of them now used as galleries, concert halls, libraries, museums–stand side by side with the churches. During the Holocaust, some courageous Hungarian gentiles risked their lives to save Jews; Zsuzsanna Ozsváth describes one such person in her memoir When the Danube Ran Red. In addition, Hungarians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have suffered sieges, wars, relocations, regime changes, impoverishment; it is a lot to put together in the mind and heart. One should not relativize history–the suffering of Jews and other Holocaust victims cannot be likened to anything else–but Hungarians are familiar with trauma. An outsider comes to understand it in glimpses; a story, a saying, or even a bitter joke lets you see, for a split second, what people here have gone through.

I will not be surprised if I eventually encounter negative attitudes toward Jews, even coming from people I like. In the U.S. I have met people who are resentful of certain Jews’ money and power, or baffled by certain Orthodox practices, or critical of certain Israeli government policies. The dangerous error here–as with all prejudices–lies in turning a particular criticism, dislike, or misunderstanding into a judgment of an entire people, or even an entire person. Criticism has its place, but generalized criticism loses the very faculty of discernment and becomes tragically uncritical.

Here in Hungary people have told me, again and again, how much they appreciate my open-mindedness–and have shown me kindness and openness too. But how people treat me is just a fragment of what I want to learn and understand. The experience in a country is inevitably personal, but it can also be more–not through abandonment of the personal aspect, which is there no matter what, but through attention to things outside the self. Give me a few years. I will come back to the question that started off this piece, perhaps with more of an answer.

I took the photo of the Szolnok gallery (formerly the synagogue) on Friday.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

What Happened to Liberty?

I read just now about the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue–which happened yesterday, during Shabbat services–and while I am in a rush, about to go to the U.S. for a week, I have to say a few things about it. First, it is sickening. The lives are gone, and so is everyone’s safety; no place, not even a house of worship, is safe. I am so sad for everyone who was there and for their families and friends.

Second, something strange is going on in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world–but the U.S. seems to take the lead in massacres). Many have blamed Trump’s rhetoric and recklessness, and the stridency of his followers. Yes, there is plenty of basis for that explanation, but it is far from complete.

There seems to be a growing attitude in the U.S. that if someone or something makes you uncomfortable, you have the right to eliminate it–by ignoring, dismissing, or, at the outer extreme, killing the offending entity. There is a loss of willingness to be uncomfortable, to take in things that challenge one’s assumptions.

This may have to do with the increasing personalization (or appearance of personalization) on social media; the emphasis, in schools and elsewhere, on personal opinion, even opinion without grounding; and a belief, in many walks of life, that the most important thing is to be surrounded with people and things that agree with you. Take that to extremes, and you have hate groups and murderers–but far short of that, I sense an assumption, in milder places, that one of the goals of life is to be reflected and affirmed by others.

It may also have to do with a lack of listening, the lack of a practice of listening. In the name of “engagement,” people are asked, all over the place, for their quick reactions–to a play, movie, book, or anything else–and if you expect yourself and others to react so fast, you don’t have room to take things in.

I don’t know how to begin combating this. Some of it has to happen in education; teachers have to help students understand views and ways of speaking that differ from their own. News and other  publications have to do more to encourage thoughtful comments; I have seen too many good writers put down by readers who refuse to read.

I have often been put down for sounding a little old-fashioned; my diction is not typically American, and I sometimes get carried away with expressions that don’t help what I want to say. I am aware of this flaw in my writing–but some people write me and my work off on account of it. They refuse to read further, instead of considering that I have a slightly different language on account of years lived abroad, years spent with languages other than English, and a distance from much of popular culture.

I do not have any big solutions, but one of the first steps must be to revive the idea of liberty as expressed by John Stuart Mill and others: the idea that we have something to learn from those different from us, from opinions that we find wrong, and from expressions that we find troubling. By “troubling” I don’t mean dangerous; I don’t mean that anyone has to extend an olive branch to a murderer. I mean that in our midst there are many things, many people, that we can either shut out or consider–and while no one can take in everything or everyone, we can make our selections with some doubt, some acknowledgment that there is more in the world than what we understand, like, and accept. And let people worship in peace.

I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it. There is no picture this time.